Gordon Dahlquist, The The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters

I spoke with "The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters" author Gordon Dahlquist for a long time about this book, it's part fantasy, part romance, part adventure, all mystery.  This interview was originally publised on December 18, 2008.

Mr. Dahlquist was very easy to talk to and had a lot of amazing things to say to us.

I hope you enjoy reading what he had to share with us as much as I enjoyed visiting with him about "The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters."

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Cover images copyright Bantambooks.com

Thanks so much for speaking with me about your book, "The Glass Books
of the Dream Eaters!" I want to thank you for this book, but I also want to
beat you up about it because I've carried this book with me everywhere I've
been just so I could read the next page or two when I had a spare minute! (We

GD: Thank you, it's that kind of book! It's not a book for everybody, but
it's a book that if you want to, it asks you to sink into it, it's that kind of

  I did a little Googling on you and found an interview you had done,
where you said that you wanted to write a book that would give you a kick in the

GD: Yeah, I think everyone writes on some level to please them selves or
write the kind of book they would like to read. I read lots of different kinds of things, I've always read a lot of science fiction, when I was younger I read all of the Tolkien books several times, I read mystery stories, all kinds
of things like that, and I read comic books and all of those things I enjoy
but so frequently it's all about turning them out so quickly. I just wanted to try to write something that took a little longer that could afford to be a
little more detailed, a little more luxurious, the kind of things that I take
more pleasure from in the stories.

I didn't have any kind of publishing deal when it happened so it was very much written to entertain me. Because I like those stories I wanted to try to do five of them at once.

What gave you the kick? Was there a particular storyline that grabbed

GD: In a way what gave me the kick was being able to combine them to
actually realize that you can make it kind of complicated, that you could actually
spend time in the details. An enormous amount happens in the book, but it
really only covers about two and half days. For me, my pleasure is actually
imagining the situation, what would you do? What would you think? And some of that is also about imagining a different time and there are different pressures
and different societal assumptions but also it's just the ability to lace one
little plot thread clue and not really come back to it for about fifty pages
and then...oh there's a little bit more and oh there's a bit more...and by the
end you've got this really dense weave of things going back and forth. For
years and years I wrote plays and the American theater is such that the money
situation is such that people generally write four to six character plays and
that's all anyone can afford, if that. That last act of the book is
essentially a fourteen character play set on a dirigible. I've counted them, and there  are something like ten or twelve people with speaking parts and it's a long
scene. If you were to speak it out it's at least a half an hour or forty five
minutes. So in a way there's also the pleasure in actually writing a one act
play, a one act climax in a way that you can't do anymore in the theater.
The thing that really hooked me was the complexity, being able to do that kind
of detail and that kind of psychological detail, hopefully going deep into
people's psyche, but not through like ' Oh I have this memory about my kitten,'
in a way you never find out, like what in the world happened with
Chang,.he's blinded and getting in the nose and who was that guy. In another kind onovel, the person who did that to him would show up. And I don't really so
much care about that, I'm more about trying to find his psychology just by what he does and how he chooses, so it's all through the details of every day
life, actually reveal that. Which to me, that's interesting because that's
actually how you get to know most people.

The whole time, as I was reading the book, I kept thinking what a
marvelous play this would be!

GD: Right, you know I have nothing to do with the whole idea of it being a
movie, which I'm really happy about. I'm still writing...a sequel is out
already in England and then here in March, and I'm about halfway through a third.

But, I'm still writing them. Any conventional screenplay has to chunk it down
to about a third the size and you have to cut characters and combine things
and I don't want to do that, I don't want to say that I'm cutting this
character while I'm still writing that character. (laughs) So I can't have anything
to do with that and I'm totally supportive of what they're doing but you know
a film production is in many ways its own kind of theater board
meeting....you know 'who can we get" -."who can't we get?"..."how much time can it be?".."where can we film and depending on that, how much can we spend?"

So you've turned it over to somebody else?

GD: Yeah but on the other hand, I think it's the kind of thing that you read
and you can't help but imagine ...like "oh that would look so great."

  I kept imagining Depp as one character since his company has optioned it, but I'm interested in what character you think he'd play.

GD: Many, many people, who would know nothing about the filming, from the
beginning would say "oh he's Cardinal Chang and I think he would be great as
Cardinal Chang, I don't think there's any question about it. I also think he
would actually be, when thinking about "Sleepy Hollow" and any number of kinds of roles he's played I think he would be also superb as the doctor. And in a
way, I think that's a more natural fit but it's not up to me. (laughs again)
I think he could do either of them, he could do anybody.

  Talking about something being a kick in the pants, you've written
several plays, won awards....what kind of kick in the pants was it to sell your
first book?

GD: Well it was really insane! The whole circumstance was really crazy. I
basically knew nobody in the publishing industry. A friend of mine who was also
a playwright was also an audio book editor at a big press. And I knew her
and said can you read the first three chapters and let me know what you think?
And typical of any kind of editor, they walk around with these satchels of
twelve manuscripts at all times. And they're always saying I'll read it, I'll
read it. You know they are reading things constantly and so that was in March
of 2005 and I was doing a play in New York that summer and she had gone to
the west coast, I think, for the Fourth of July and came back and was jet
lagged and up and she read it. She started reading it and burned through the
first few chapters in a night and I didn't have a cell phone then but she knew my
director and she left this message on his machine saying
"havehimcallmehavehimcallme" and of course my director, being a director, let me know after midnight that she'd called. By the time I got back to her, it was the next work day and she was kind of worked up and hadn't heard from me and had kind of marched into her boss's office and whopped down the first three chapters and said that my friend's working on this thing and it's great. I want you to lookat it. 

And so it went into the pipe at that press, that was in July and then
by August I had met with the editor there who was really enthusiastic about
it and the expectation was, crazily that they were going to bid. I didn't know
what that was, I didn't know anything. But then August in the publishing
world is all about vacations so there was a week when the editor was on vacation
and then when the Editor in Chief was, then another when the publisher was.
I was told at the beginning of August that I'd know something any day
now....and then it really dragged until Labor Day (Sept)..and then after Labor Day
they came back and said well, the editor's point of view was that it's a
mystery, it's a thriller, it's sexy, it's romantic, it's exciting, it's all these
things and it's the publisher's view as well, it's a thriller, it's
historical, it's romantic, what is it? We don't know how to market it. So they kind
of disagreed, so they made an offer and it was really pretty low and at any
other time in my life I would have jumped at it. But I had an agent but that
time and he was like really, I think we can do better than this. We should at
least talk to other people. So I left my office, took a walk around the
block...and then my agent, who at the time was in California was partnering with
this agent who was primarily a foreign rights agent put together an auction.
And I really knew nothing about it. So literally on Friday we say no to the one
press and then over that weekend, this other agent who I'd not met, faxes the
book, which is not short, to thirteen presses. And then over the weekend
there's this kind of frenzy and I hear about it on Monday and get a sort of
update on Tuesday. The New York agent's office is up in Westchester and so he
comes in to the Algonquin Hotel, it's a huge meeting place for publishers, so I
went there on Wednesday and met the editor and we had this crazy meeting
where I walked out at the end of an hour having a hand shake deal. I didn't get
a check for another two and a half months. It was this crazy hallucinogenic
thing. It was about the publishing market then and international momentum and
all of these things. It was very strange. I've had friends ask me how do I
get my book published and literally, I have no idea. It just happened. I have a
lot more experience now...I know a lot more about the publishing industry. It
came totally out of the blue.

  WOW! And then the rights were sold when?

GD: That took a long time, right when the whole deal was happening there was
a sort of feeding frenzy...everyone wants to buy it! And also every Hollywood film agencies were saying let us represent your book. So first I met with
all of these agencies - tried to decide which was the right one. Then, the
one I signed with, which was UTA ...their advice was you can sell it now for a
lot of money but you really are just selling it and you don't know who you are selling it to.
But our advice is to wait for the book to settle down, let
the mania pass and you'll see who really cares about it and see who really
wants it. The risk being, after the mania passes, no one will want it. But that
was their sense and it made perfect sense to me because I care about the book
and I didn't want to sell it to anyone who I thought was crap and then they
contacted me and I heard from Sam Sarkar, he's a great guy. We met for
breakfast…totally no pressure, not about the book, talked about everything in
the world...everything. We had a perfectly lovely talk, he's a great guy and
then I didn't hear anything and then they wanted to buy it. I believed they
were the right place, certainly everything that Johnny Depp does has a real
clear sense of integrity with regard to Hollywood. They cared about the details
and that's why they wanted to do it, which is again, for me all the more
important to know that any attempts to make the book into a movie means turning it
into something entirely different. You want people who are going to really
care about what they are doing, it may look like something entirely different
but it's going to have its own integrity that's going to pay attention to what the book's all about. So in that sense I feel really comfortable.

Did you start to write this book with the idea that it might be more
than a single title?

GD: Not immediately, I originally wrote it knowing that the story wasn't finished, but really feeling like it could end...that it's only two and half days
and that in some sense, you've come full circle. So it was really fine to me.
Again, totally unbeknownst to me the New York agent negotiated a two book
deal. Then when an adventure starts up again, do you look at it differently? And
are you changed? Are your reasons for doing it different? So that seemed
like a book about transition so it seems pretty natural that the book would
have its own, that there would be a third one. So I didn't write the first one
knowing that there would be a sequel, I was perfectly happy with the end.

You've got three really, really fascinating characters with Cardinal
Chang, Miss Temple and Doctor Svenson. By the way, I love that you call her
Miss Temple through the book, I kept wondering when we'd find out her first

GD: Lots of people call her Celeste, but I don't, really. That's been a
funny thing, as the books have gone on, the degree to which Svenson and Chang can
actually call her Celeste. But no one else does...well or the Contessa.

These three characters, Miss Temple, Chang and Doctor Svenson together
make a whole, was that your goal, to kind of bring pieces to the table with

GD: Definitely, and on different levels, one of the things that's sort of
fun, like a big fake 19th century novel so much seems like the project of a
19th century novel is about it's being a portrait of society. There's this
huge wide canvas and so to one degree it's certainly about showing different
levels of class and really different levels of this kind of experience,
different kinds of education, different genders, different class, different nations.
So there's that, and trying to have each of them have a different
biographical, biological background. But then also, that each one offers immediately a
different kind of fictional genre. In Miss Temple you have a sense of mystery
and intrigue but it's much more kind of lurid and romantic, because she's so
much more steeped in innocence and foreignness. It's so much more full of
wonder, I think and with Chang there's so much more immediately about adventure
and about another kind of intrigue and with Svenson there's immediately a
deductive mystery...all the stuff at the very beginning about where's the
cigarette butt and where's the ladder and who could have done this? And that he's
more rational, more educated so there's bringing those different kinds of
stories. For me some of the pleasure is watching it overlap in the last couple of
chapters, Chang is behaving much more like Svenson and Svenson is careening through the mansion killing everybody. For me the fun is that that can only
happen if you've already set up somebody else being that, if you notice the
switch, and it also kind of overlaps them with each other. So definitely, to
have each one of them bring things and definitely create a whole. But the other
thing that's kind of funny to me is that they don't really spend so much time
together and yet they really become attached to each other. Which is one of
the interesting things about it, the second book is out in the UK...a little
bit of a spoiler here, but a lot of the second book is spent with them apart.
And the third book, they're very much together. So what's curious about the
third book is actually having the three of them have a ten page conversation
which has never happened before after 3,000 pages. For me it's a real
interesting kind of challenge, everyone knows each other really well except
actually, they don't. So it keeps it hopefully fresh and it's also exciting to read.

  And you've set them in the make believe place...that you just created.

GD: Yeah, pretty much. You know, I don't presume to know any European city
well enough, nor do I really care to do the research because the book isn't
really about that. But I don't want to set it in London or Amsterdam or
Budapest and pretend that's where it is. But at the same time, I think there's
something really deliberate about that fact that it's fake or made up allows you
to both, put your own stamp on it as a reader. I've had people say ...oh it's
just like London and others say oh it's just like Paris. And I recently went
to Budapest and I thought oh it's just like Budapest. LOL Part of it's just
fun and also because it is a really a historical story, it's really a 21st
century narrative in fiction. You read it and it's clearly also about other
things like computers, and it's about things like imperialism and it's about
things like sexuality that you view as a 21st century person when you are reading
it. I did very little research for this book, I'm a real fan of George
Macdonald Fraser who wrote Flashman, he was so scrupulously researched, at one point she has the big scene of having tea in the hotel and she has been given
slices of mango and my editor was is mango a European fruit? And she notes that her father had a mango tree on the island and so I had to go to my computer
and found that the Portugese brought the mango from Brazil in 1500-something
and figured it could get up to Antigua by 1800-something, so I figure I am

  Glass books. That's an interesting concept.

GD: I spent a lot of time working at Columbia University doing digital
publishing, working with computers I was the Columbia webmaster for a few years so a lot of it comes from hanging around computers and computer people. It'snot so much about computers, as it is how we use technology, particularly
technology that holds information, whether it's a photograph or whether it's a
computer or a television, it really changes how we think about ourselves. If you
think about it, right now we can have just about any piece of music pretty
much anywhere and you think a hundred years ago the circumstances under whichyou would hear a symphony were really specific and they weren't portable and only so many people had ever heard one. Speaking of Johnny Depp, I saw an
interview with Jack Nicholson once and he was saying, in the nicest possible
way, you know "you've got to understand that I meet more people in a year than
most people meet in their entire life". And not be a colossal ass when you
literally can't take it in, but you think about just from photography, how many
people's faces and bodies do we just take for granted that we've seen
relative to someone say a hundred years ago who lived in a village? Things are
happening so quickly, just with the jumps with cell phones, you have cell phones
with pictures and cell phones with texts. I'm old enough to remember VCRs and
I remember the first Apple computers coming out, and I remember the first
i-pods and people saying that it's just like people walking down the street in
a movie. And now that is totally invisible. So some of that for me about the
glass books is to get that kind of technology that radically changes the way
you think about yourself, the idea that you could either lose yourself in or
swamp yourself with all these other experiences as if they're real. I'm not
a technophobe, I mean I love my computer and I love the internet but it's
clearly a tool. People now define themselves by how many friends they have on
Facebook. If you were to tell someone fifteen years ago that a really
important part of your life was connecting to a hundred people that you've never met they would find that strange, they might not find it bad but it would
certainly be different.

The story you've told highlighted the idea of men wanting to control
women. Big sexual control issues.

GD: I think that's the narrative, I think the degree to which western
history is about triumph or insecurity, the chicken and the egg. I was upstate in
NY with a bunch of friends and we were on this lake and the lake had these
tiny little islands, little bits of land. ..and we had three canoes and we
decided to just race to the island and one of my friends got there first and we
had decided, in the imperialist tradition that who ever got to the island
first, got to name the island. So my friend got to the island and proudly
For pronounced it "My Triumph Island" and it was like, that was western history. so many people, women are part of that "my triumph island" and whether it'scontrol of their workplace, controlling their body, controlling their
education, it's still really active territory. And you look at what was going on in
the 19th century and it's even more so which is one of the reasons to talk
about the 19th century, for writing purposes all these genres are out, you're
getting Sherlock Holmes all kinds of big novels and you're getting Victorian
pornography all kinds of undercurrents of genres, you're getting Bram Stoker..
so there's that and you've got the society that views itself as intensely
moralistic and kind of superior and all about kind of reaching down from a
height to elevate people and yet what's going on in this sort of imperialist
mission, what's actually going on in Africa or the Indies or anywhere, it's
insanely immoral in regards to what's going on in England in regards to women,
in regard to children working, it's heinous. But the people in charge, the
people writing the history of the country aren't aware of it and it's this kind
of cognitive dissonance, two trains running at the same time. You can be a
liberated woman if you are someone like the Contessa or if you're someone like
Miss Temple who's rich and if you're not it's really tough and no one's
interested in that toughness.

Do you have any idea when the movie will start filming?

GD: My understanding is that they've just hired a writer, so I don't know. I
don't know if he, Johnny Depp, is interested in being in it, or if they just
want to produce it. Who in the world knows? I mean a film is so difficult
to make and there's so many different people involved in it, so many different
steps of real active creativity.

I have a couple of other things I wanted to hit on, and you've been so
generous with your time, if you are OK time wise?

GD: Sure

  Dirigibles, pan opticons...did you know about these?

GD: Pan opticons are something...I went to grad school in the 80s and I
think pan opticons were definitely in the air during a certain part of academia,
that I kind of knew and that's also very interesting to me in terms of
theater. And the dirigible is just really crazily...I can tell you the origin of
the dirigible which is the thing that I do for exercise is fence, and a bunch
of guys that I fence with for now almost twenty years and one guy that I've
been fencing with since junior high and we've gone through training programs
and we've learned at various places but we fence in this old dilapidated park
that's surrounded by trees and malfunctioning lamp posts and in the middle
of it ages ago as some community project they had painted this kind of strange
circle probably about eight yards across and the circle was almost a kind of
game board only this strangely almost demonic, one would have a big eye, one
had an almost female centaur with horns, almost wicked kind of thing ..so it
was almost like this weird kind of sacrifice circle but one of the guys I
fence with had created, kind of out of whole cloth, this kind of 19th century
idea of people fighting in the hot air balloon. So we're going to fence on
this circle, to go out of the circle is to fall out of the balloon and to fall
into the circle is to fall into the flame that elevates the balloon. So you're
fencing and leaping around over the middle and backing off and we did that
for several years and it became its own sort of game really but that put in my
head the whole balloons...dirigibles, and there's no fencing outside the
dirigible, but the whole notion of balloons in general was totally in my head
because of that. So that was a very long answer. Not that I hold myself up
to be any kind of fencing expert but a lot of the stuff that happens,
particularly with Chang is stuff that I've done in one way or another.

You even managed to have Miss Temple use a weapon, she was so amazed at
the heft of weapon and that was so believable!! Then this little Victorian
woman would be fencing and stabbing people and her reaction is perfect!

GD: I'm so glad, I mean that's also that kind of thing if you feel like this
is actually happening what it would be like for someone else to really do it
then that's the measure of success.

May I share that there is a number three coming out?

GD: Sure, sure.

Are you going to do a book tour with number two?

GD: I have no idea. I did a small one with book number one, just going to a
few cities really. I don't know, that would be March, April...so I'm not
really sure.

If there is one, I'll rally the troops in support.

GD: Oh well, if there is one, I'll let you know. Absolutely.

I'm going to throw a word at you...steam punk.

GD: Oh sure, totally....yeah yeah yeah there's William Gibson, Bruce
Sterling books, "the Difference Engine." There was a big animated movie years
ago...what was the name? Steam boy! This wasn't written with any sense of that but  certainly I am aware of it. I'm a big fan of Neal Stephenson and I really
like the "Baroque" trilogy books and the "Cryptonomicon" book.

You have been so kind and generous with your time today!

GD: It's been totally my pleasure!

Thanks so much!

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